As we are witnessing expanding drought conditions here in Kenya, where the Headquarters of the UN Environment Programme are located, and also in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and elsewhere in Africa, we are starkly reminded that climate change is already affecting vulnerable regions and societies across the world. People, animals and plants are suffering from more unpredictable rains, higher temperatures, and more frequent and severe weather events. Not every storm, flood or drought is caused by climate change, but the general trend is undeniable.
Humanity has responded to the global challenge of climate change with the most ambitious international agreement ever concluded – the Paris Agreement. All countries in the world have agreed to do their part under the Agreement that entered into force on 4 November 2016. Forests play a special role: over 100 countries have chosen to reach part of their national climate actions through the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of forests because for these nations and their peoples forests are a priority. If all these forest-related pledges are realized, they would remove more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than the combined emissions of all cars in the world. Of course, the benefits of having more and healthier forests do not stop there. Forests clean our air, filter and store our drinking water, regulate our local climate, and provide habitat for more than half of all terrestrial plants and animals. They are also simply beautiful places to visit, and they nourish our spirit and energize our minds after a hectic day.
One of the most promising global trends in climate action is that more and more local communities, regional and national governments recognize the potential of transforming lives and landscapes through planting trees and restoring forest landscapes. Under a global banner introduced by Germany seven years ago, the ‘Bonn Challenge’, more than 40 countries and regional governments have pledged to bring 148 million hectares of forest landscapes under active restoration by the year 2020. This is an area the size of France, the United Kingdom and Spain combined. In the United States, for example, the National Forest Service and partners are already restoring an area of 15 million hectares across many different landscapes. This has created thousands of jobs in rural areas. A similar effort in Europe could go a long way to stimulate green growth in more remote rural areas where landscape restoration investments would offer local economic gains while contributing to the national economy and offering significant environmental returns.
The next time you take a walk in a forest near you in Europe, remember that most of those forests, even when they appear old and majestic, are rather young – at least from the perspective of trees. In the 17th and 18th century, much of Central Europe was so degraded by deforestation and overgrazing that droughts and crop failures regularly resulted in famine and mass migration. Only concerted government interventions and investment in reforestation and education on forest management could break that vicious cycle. Similar transformations have happened in other regions. Costa Rica’s forests were down to 41 per cent in 1986 and now, through concerted national efforts cover over half the country. These restored forests harbor some of the world’s richest biodiversity, and attract tourists from across the globe. South Korea has managed to turn itself from a nearly completely deforested and impoverished country with eroding soils in the 1950’s into a flourishing economy with over 60 per cent forest cover. These changes were possible because of strong political will enabling and driving national and local efforts.
The world today needs a similar kind of emergency response to climate change for the benefit of people, especially for those fleeing from environmental degradation and decreasing soil fertility into ever-growing megacities. Re-creating resilient and productive landscapes by simply bringing back trees and forests can play this role. Forest landscape restoration can provide climate action and economic benefits. It does not replace other strong climate actions in energy, transport, agriculture and other sectors, but complements these. The ‘decarbonization’ of our economies is already happening, but we have little time because the impacts of climate change have already started. Conserving and restoring forests and planting more trees in agricultural landscapes, can bring us much-needed breathing space to win the race against time that we find ourselves in. Europe can play a key role in leading by example, and by inspiring and supporting its neighbors to establish resilient and productive forest landscapes.
This help is particularly important for Europe’s neighbors to the South. In Africa, 65 per cent of all arable land is already degraded to some extent. The Sahara is advancing to the North and to the South. Helping countries such as Kenya or Ethiopia to achieve their ambitious commitments for restoring landscapes and forests would be an investment not only for Africans, but for Europeans as well. It would give millions of people economic opportunities near their homes. Forests are indeed more than the sum of their trees – they are essential for our health and well-being and they can be the basis for building a more resilient world.